Graceful conifer inspires a devoted club of scientists

Jane Hodgins
Northern Research Station, U.S. Forest Service
December 11th, 2013 at 3:45PM

Northern Research Station scientist Laura Kenefic resists the temptation to stick with people she knows at scientific gatherings, and her discipline is paying dividends for northern white-cedar.  

Attending a forestry conference a decade ago, Kenefic joined a table of strangers that included Jean-Claude Ruel, a Canadian scientist who, it turned out, was looking for long-term data on northern white-cedar. A research forester at the Penobscot Experimental Forest north of Bangor, Maine, Kenefic happens to work at one of the few places in the country with more than half a century of data on the species. Their collaboration quickly grew to include scientists from universities, industry, the U.S. Forest Service and the Canadian Forest Service who are all interested in northern white-cedar. Meetings, dinners and a few adventures in the course of research aimed at addressing the tree’s slow growth and sparse regeneration gave the group of scientists an atmosphere that felt unique to its members. “It seemed more like a club than a scientific working group,” Kenefic said. “We became the Cedar Club.”

Getting lost on forest roads unknown even to Kenefic’s GPS unit has figured in some of these adventures, as has passing logging trucks on winding, one-lane roads during blizzards and a few bear and moose encounters.   

It isn’t just the Cedar Club that feels a bond with northern white-cedar, a graceful evergreen conifer with small cones and scales instead of needles. The tree’s wood resists rot, making it ideal for products that give homes character, like shingles, or span generations, like outdoor furniture.  Also known as arborvitae, a cultivated variety of white-cedar, it is often part of our lawns as hedges or shrubs. “It’s a tree people care about,” Kenefic said.

The northern white-cedar is a species that was in dire need of its own research club. Mortality of northern white-cedar seedlings can be extremely high, and in parts of the region the harvest is greater than growth, shrinking cedar-dominated forest land across some parts of the tree’s range in the northern U.S. and southern Canada.

This year, the Club’s decade of research culminated in the “Silvicultural Guide for Northern White-Cedar (Eastern White Cedar),” a report published by the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. The Canadian Forest Service translated the document into French, and the “Guide pour la sylviculture du thuya occidental” broke records with more than 900 downloads in the first nine months after publication, making it the most downloaded Canadian Forest Service publication in French.

The Cedar Club and northern white-cedar are discussed in more detail in the winter edition of the Northern Research Station’s publication “Research Review.”